All of us who have been born into this broken, fallen world have experienced suffering to some degree or other. All our stories are different, and our experiences are as unique to us as each of us is to the world around us. We share common themes and sometimes we even share the details and specifics of some of our life events; still, how we experience them is intricately linked to our particular DNA, to how we as individuals think, reason, and react. Therefore, when we think on the topic of suffering, we must be careful not to compare our acquaintances with it to those of others. As we are all wired differently in the way we handle what life throws at us, so the experiences, degrees, and impact of suffering varies as widely as the individuals who experience it.
I have suffered deeply this year, probably more than at any other point in my life. My heart has been broken in more ways than I ever thought possible, and I feel as though I have died a thousand deaths. A good number of those deaths involved losses so great I felt like pieces of me were being carried away with each loss. Then there were the deaths of hopes, the deaths of dreams, plans, aspirations…even memories. All the while, I’ve continued to function, walking around wounded and vulnerable, largely unprotected from the usual hurts and disappointments of life. And as those little zingers find their way deep into the throbbing, raw places… I die all over again.
Even still, there have been things I have willingly put to death during this time period–this is the “dying to self” we read about in the New Testament. It’s sanctification, really—the process of becoming more like Christ. If we have eyes to see it, I think God often uses these times of intense suffering to invite us to put to death the things in our lives that contribute to, or are by-products of, the pain we are currently experiencing. We are often called to reexamine what we believe (Truth? Lies?) and how we are living in response to what we’re believing. So we put to death those lies, those old ways of thinking, and we put to death our (usually) sinful responses. Sometimes our responses are our knee-jerk reactions (anger, bitterness, fear.) Sometimes they are our unhealthy coping mechanisms for dealing with pain or anger or fear. I’ve died a lot of those deaths lately, some of them more than once. They have a habit of emerging from their graves like rotting corpses, trying to pull us back underground with them. We need to be holding onto something utterly firm and secure in order to avoid being pulled in—and the only One that is immovable enough to cling to reliably is Jesus himself. He is well acquainted with putting those things to death—he has succeeded in every case—and He is equally well acquainted with suffering. He knows because he has been there and experienced it all himself.
As we go through this sanctification process in the midst of our suffering–being made holy even while enduring unjust pain and suffering–we truly are becoming more like Christ. Peter goes even further than this, telling us, “To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps.” In Psalm 34, David says, “many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the LORD delivers him out of them all. The LORD is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit.” It would seem that even though sometimes God leads us right into these times of suffering and death, no matter the cause of our suffering, He is there to lead us out, holding us close all the way.
But let’s be real here for a moment: sanctification during suffering doesn’t always look like glory in the making! What about the times during great trial and suffering that you stumble and fall and make colossal mistakes? What happens when you mess up big because you are a bleeding mess and in the process of dying yet another death? This is where I found myself at several points over the last year. I temporarily took my eyes off Jesus, and when those zombie-like thought and behavior patterns reached up to pull me into the grave, I fell in and they took full advantage of me. In the blink of an eye, I was overcome by hopelessness, despair, fear, and rage, and I acted upon them all in some very frightening ways. In many ways, I was not at all myself, but nevertheless, it was me, right there in the flesh, operating only out of my flesh. Once I was able to think clearly, in rushed embarrassment, shame, discouragement, and more fear. Hopelessness, despair, and rage were right behind. It was a vicious, deadly circle in the making. And it is there that I believe we have two choices: we can give up and give ourselves over to the cycle, or we can invite Jesus to join with us in putting a stop to it. I do not minimize the reality of my weaknesses and sins. But so often, I am tempted to believe that my current mess-up will be the final ‘nail in the coffin’ for me, that it will negate the hard work I have done and the victories I’ve won through this period of suffering. I am tempted to believe that when it comes to me, there are some things that are just not redeemable, not worthy of grace and the love of God.
But I know that is just not true: the Bible says there is nothing, nothing…no thing that can ever separate us from the love and the mercy and the grace of God! Nothing! He promises to be there in our trials and deliver us from them. He promises redemption, resurrection, healing, and freedom. I’ve found there is something about suffering that, if we allow it, brings deeper understanding of these promises and a firmer grasp on all the verses we know so well and often take for granted. If we really believe what we say we believe, our worst suffering, our biggest sins, our greatest fears MUST propel us forward into His arms—where we belong—to receive not only comfort and protection, but also to lay hold of the promises we profess to believe. The thing about God is that everything that flows from Him IS Him: His characteristics, His promises, and His very words are inseparable from God Himself. When we cling to God we cling to His promises; when we cling to His promises, His words, and His love—we cling to Him.
During this time of great suffering, my only hope is in clinging to the Giver of All Good Things, my Savior, my Shepherd, my Father, the Lover of My Soul. Certainly God must have so many names because He is completely indescribable and the embodiment of everything good we can think of. But I also think He bears the names and titles that fit our specific needs in specific seasons. As each of us is unique, so is our relationship with the One who made us, and I believe He takes great delight in speaking to us in our own unique languages, and loving us in the unique ways we need to be loved.
Certainly He will deliver me out of this difficult time; He has promised it, and I will choose to cling to that as I cling to Him. Even if there are more deaths to die, I do not face them alone. In the areas where I still continue to bleed out, I choose to receive His divine transfusion, His own life-blood to replace my own. There will come a time when the dying is done and a holy stillness will fill the atmosphere; then resurrection will come.
It will happen. He has promised it.